Our story begins on a warm spring night in early May. The narrator finds herself tucked into bed, teeth freshly brushed, next to the clock reading 10:12 p.m. An AP Chemistry review book, the victim of the ghastly hit-and-run of the narrator’s evening studying, lies face down on the pillow in its final moments, awaiting its last examination. Nothing is stirring — not even a mouse.
Now, this tale is not meant to frighten, but the story must be told the way it happened. The hands of the narrator, determined as they are to leaf tirelessly through this College Board Bible, are suddenly seized by an overpowering force. Her fingers begin to creep across the bedspread. The plasticky lip of the laptop, with all the desperation of a lover denied, is delicately traced. And then — snap! The chamber of secrets is opened. The dizzying blue glow of Facebook, looming like a chasm of diversion, at last awakens the narrator from her semi-conscious state. She immediately lunges for the logout button. In her few final moments, however, she glimpses something out of the ordinary in the social media world — a post related not to romance, weather complaint or vague existential angst but scholarliness. She thinks the specter is gone. She believes she has found a way out of the vortex. She clicks.
Our naive narrator is delighted by what she finds. While she has been stewing away at a too-small desk with an ion table, the scientific world has been making leaps and bounds in rediscovering dinosaurs. She drinks it in like she has been dying of thirst and is now underwater. As she reads, her eyes happen upon a species she does not know: araeoscelidia. Grateful once more for the speed and ease of the Internet, she quickly discovers what it is: an extinct member of the tetrapod family, forefather of the four-limbed vertebrates, extinguished nearly 300 million years ago. Agilely navigating through thousands of years of prehistoric history within the clean white walls of Wikipedia, our narrator laments the loss of these prehistoric beauties. She is ready to relegate these elegant creatures and all of their relatives to the musty hallways of extinction. This is when she discovers the coelacanth.
Let us zoom out. It is 11:45 p.m. on a Sunday night in spring. The refrigerator is humming, the crickets are chirping, and our narrator — bless the poor thing — is curled up in front of her computer screen, moved to tears by the striking beauty of a Wikipedia entry on a 5-foot-long African fish.
For years, the coelacanth was believed to have perished 66 million years ago in the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, surrounded by its friends and family. Yet this glorious specimen, with a strange-shaped heart made entirely of gold, would not go down without a fight. In 1938, the coelacanth was discovered, alive and well, swimming off the coast of Africa. They call the noble beast a “living fossil.”
Now, before we call the humble coelacanth the final nail in the coffin, we must confess: The narrator has already attempted to defy countless laws of nature. She has fallen for every trick — the soft glow of the Wi-Fi signal, the dizzying rush of the mouse click, the soothing voice promising “just for a minute.” But we must establish that she was no classic victim of the social media spiral or the video game vortex. Her web exploration, albeit not directly useful to her just then, was, in fact, objectively useful. What’s the matter with a little on-the-side learning? With a responsibility to our world to further the scientific field, our narrator — using nothing other than some electricity and the Internet — was burning her own small candle of enlightenment into a brighter future.
Alas, readers, I have the utmost faith in your attention and your intelligence. You have likely figured out by now that this is a cautionary tale. The narrator’s ill-fated downward spiral into the most obscure wells of knowledge of the Internet has become such a common phenomenon that Urban Dictionary, the New York Times, and some dude at Stanford University have all coined a term for it. Prepare for the icy chill of recognition, friends, for this is nothing but another face of productive procrastination.
There is, of course, some theoretical distinction between an utter waste of time and “more useful vices.” But we must remain vigilant and notice that there is a faulty brain process at work here: one that allows us to delude ourselves into believing that absorbing this vague and fascinating potpourri of information is any more helpful to the future self that is sitting paralyzed in an exam seat than Facetweeting, Instabooking, or just plain old-fashioned screwing around would be.
If it is too painful to tell yourself, reader, hear it from me. It is not.
So with no disregard to the largely unplumbed entertainment resources of Wikipedia, where our narrator and many others like her will always find their second home, allow this story to tether you to the truth. You keep your eyes on the prize, ladies and gentlemen. The coelacanth waited to be discovered for 66 million years. You can stand to wait a few hours more.